Centre for Research in Communication and Culture


24 May 2017

Asch’s studies of independence and conformity as accidental breaching experiments into social reality

Presented By John Rae
  • 1-2.30pm (a DARG event)
  • B1.14 Brockington Building

About this event

"Solomon Asch’s experiments on independence and conformity (Asch, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1956) are enduring classics of psychological Social Psychology. They stand as a classic demonstrations of Kurt Lewin’s recommendation that group-related social forces could be mobilised and observed laboratory settings (Lewin, 1945). The implementation details and the levels of conformity observed are invariably reported in introductory psychology textbooks. Yet Asch’s work, and how it has been reported in such introductory accounts, has been criticised. Textbook treatments have been criticised for their focus on conformity, rather than independence, (Friend, Rafferty, & Bramel, 1990). It has been argued that Asch’s work in general is inherently individualistic (Leyens, & Corneille, 1999). Rozin (2001) takes Asch’s works as an exemplification of a methodological narrowness in social psychology which has led to the hegemony of laboratory experiments over other, more exploratory, forms of inquiry.

Yet a neglected feature of Asch’s independence and conformity studies is that they follow Lewin (e.g. Lewin, Lippitt, White, 1939) in including interview data (and to some extent observational data). In fact, the discussion of the interview data makes up a large part of the most extensive of Asch’s independence and conformity studies (Asch 1956). In this paper, I examine the reasons for this neglect and trace these limitations in Asch’s theoretical social gestalt position. One manifestation of these limitations is that although Asch created a powerfully anomalous situation in which intersubjectivity is shattered, her persistently interpreted the setting narrowly in terms of group pressure. In other words, Asch conducted a breaching experiment on social reality - yet failed to appreciate this. I compare and contrast Asch’s procedure with the breaching experiments subsequently conducted by Harold Garfinkel (Garfinkel, 1967) and suggest a set of lessons that can be learned from Asch’s study."